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Alleging exclusion, Jewish faculty boycott James Madison University’s Holocaust commemoration event

(JTA) — An event that took place at a Virginia university Thursday night to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day was scheduled to feature lectures about the legacies of Auschwitz and the intersection between white supremacy and antisemitism. There was also a planned recitation of a poem and a musical performance.

Not on the docket at James Madison University: support for the event from the school’s Jewish faculty and staff.

Dozens of them announced in an open letter that they would boycott the event, titled “An Evening Conversation on the History and Legacy of the Holocaust,” citing concerns about its appropriateness. Of particular concern, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, was a planned performance by the university’s provost, a pianist, during a segment titled “Music as Refuge in the Holocaust.”

“There was no refuge for those targeted by the ‘Final Solution,’” said the open letter, which was unsigned but said it had the support of “24 of Jewish JMU Faculty, Faculty Emeriti, and Staff.”

The letter, which the school’s student newspaper The Breeze published Thursday morning, said the planning of the Holocaust event had “disrespected and disparaged Jewish individuals, dismissed Jewish participation and failed to reflect the inclusive values that JMU purports to foster.” The letter criticized the university’s decision to invite keynote speakers from other universities and the rabbi of a neighboring community to give a community address, rather than centering James Madison personnel or the local rabbi.

That rabbi, Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner of Beth El Congregation of Harrisonburg, said the event had been planned with little to no input from Jews, and that three Jews who were added to the planning committee late in the process later resigned en masse.

In an interview, Kurtz-Lendner compared the event to “a Martin Luther King observance planned by an entire committee of white people.” He said he was joining the boycott and not encouraging his congregants, who include James Madison professors, to attend. He said the rabbi listed on the original program, from a Reform synagogue about 30 miles away in Staunton, would not attend, either.

“The program looks wholly insensitive,” he said. “Instead of being a commemoration of the Holocaust, it looks like it’s turning into an opportunity for celebration.”

That idea appeared to be rooted in the inclusion of music during the event. Maura Hametz, the Jewish chair of the university’s history department, said she had successfully argued against including instrumental music during last year’s commemoration, citing prohibitions in Jewish tradition against instrumental music in times of mourning.

“Biblically we don’t use instrumental music, as Jews,” to commemorate the Holocaust, she said. “If you use the instruments, it’s a celebration.” The proposal to include a musical interlude, she said, also had a history in “medieval church music, so that doesn’t track with what is good for us.”

The belief that Holocaust commemorations cannot include music is not universally held; some commemorations have featured music written by Jewish composers as acts of resistance or remembrance. International Holocaust Remembrance Day was created by the United Nations in 2005 as a way to mourn all victims of the Holocaust, distinct from Yom HaShoah, the Jewish holiday that takes place in April and was established by the Israeli government to commemorate specifically Jewish Holocaust victims.

Still, Hametz had made the case against music last year, so when she saw that this year’s event was again scheduled to include musical selections, she said, “It did surprise me.” She ultimately decided to boycott the event and sign the open letter.

The boycott was supported by one of the university centers sponsoring the event, the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence. Its director, Taimi Castle, issued a statement to the student newspaper saying the center would “spend time reflecting on how we can support the Jewish community at JMU in addressing the harm caused by these actions.”

A James Madison University spokesperson said Thursday that the event itself was still scheduled to proceed as intended that evening. The university said it had reached out to “a spokesperson for this group” of critics and planned to hold a meeting “to gain further understanding and collectively work on a path forward.”

The episode comes amid broad questions about the role of Jews in efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in universities and workplaces. Jewish critics of the emerging field of diversity, equity and inclusion have charged that antisemitism is not always treated as similarly offensive to racism or homophobia, despite also being rooted in hatred based on identity. The Jewish open letter signers also cited a recent statewide report on antisemitism in Virginia as reason to take their concerns about Jewish representation at the university seriously.

James Madison’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event was sponsored in part by the university’s equity and inclusion office, and the associate provost for inclusive strategies and equity initiatives was scheduled to deliver opening remarks and also moderate a question-and-answer session at the event’s end.

“This event is to create an opportunity for people to learn about the lived experiences of others and honor the Holocaust Remembrance Day through educational and solemn means,” Malika Carter-Hoyt, the school’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said in a statement provided to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The statement did not mention Jews or antisemitism.

Carter-Hoyt said she hadn’t received “any notice about these concerns” prior to the letter.

“I acknowledge the letter and express compassion toward the concerns outlined by faculty,” Carter-Hoyt said. But she also defended the planning and suggested that having Jews on the planning committee had not been a specific university priority.

“Committee members were selected based on substantive expertise and commitment to the creation of an event that properly marks the occasion,” she wrote. “No one was included or excluded explicitly based on a particular protected characteristic.”

James Madison University, located in Harrisonburg, is a public college with about 21,000 students. About 1,200 of them are Jewish, according to Hillel International, which offers some services on campus but does not have a building or rabbi there. Efforts to reach anyone affiliated with JMU Hillel were unsuccessful. The chapter’s vice president was listed as a participant on the evening’s program, scheduled to read a poem by Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor.

The school also does not have a Jewish studies department, despite what Hametz said had been extensive lobbying by faculty members to establish one. Alan Berger, who launched Jewish studies departments at Syracuse and Florida Atlantic universities, was billed as a keynote speaker at the event Thursday.

James Madison’s provost Heather Coltman, who was scheduled to play piano at the Holocaust memorial event and also previously worked at Florida Atlantic University, has an uneasy relationship with the school’s faculty. This week the faculty senate sought to condemn her for reportedly retaliating against the authors of a report on transparency at the school.

While there are courses taught on Jewish topics, the lack of a separate department means that Jewish representation on campus is limited, Hametz said.

“There is no spokesperson here for the Jewish community,” she said. “There’s no central voice to say, ‘Hey, why is this happening? How is it possible that you go ahead with a Holocaust event with no Jewish people on the committee?’”


The post Alleging exclusion, Jewish faculty boycott James Madison University’s Holocaust commemoration event appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

Dr. NATHAN WISEMAN

Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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